Legalism: Are You in the “Accountability” Zoo?: 'Overcoming Legalism and Performance-based Religion - Part 2'

Freedom in overcoming legalism

Freedom in overcoming legalism

Frequently legalism manifests in church culture variations that are not in the realm of right and wrong, sin or not sin. They are in the gray areas where only secondary and inferential arguments can be made from scripture. Like a toxic mold in damp and cool closet, legalism thrives in the gray areas of life.

For example, scripture clearly speaks about honor and modesty. It says less about how honor is to manifest itself in a Sunday dress code! If a local assembly feels strongly on a church culture matter, the local terminology will be expressed in terms of “convictions.” Those who deviate from, or are dispassionate toward, the convictions will be accepted as fellow believers, but not as fully part of the “vision of the house.” If sentiments toward a church culture matter are less strong, they will be expressed in terms of “custom” or “practice,” and they will not be used to define someone’s status in the local assembly. It normally does not take too long to discover which is which. Church culture strongly affects one’s view and definition of legalism.

Within any virtue are the seeds of self-distortion. A church culture may reflect emphasis on a legitimate biblical virtue. However, if pushed to an extreme, or if held apart from the revelation of grace and the reality of the Spirit, the virtue becomes a vice empowered by legalism. The unique quality distinguishing the fellowship becomes the seedbed of legalism. How?

  • Honesty becomes brutality.
  • Thriftiness becomes miserliness.
  • Compassion becomes enabling.
  • Courage becomes insensitivity.
  • Sensitivity becomes sentimentality.
  • Integrity becomes superiority.
  • Destiny becomes self-centeredness.
  • Conviction becomes inflexibility.
  • Flexibility becomes vacillation.


Once a dominant ethos is established in a church culture, it is often cultivated, consciously or not, by behavioral rules, expectations, and accountability programs enforced by legalism. Rather than being considered legalism, the accountability ethos of the group is viewed as those reasonable behavioral expectations that maintain core values and identify individuals as members of the group:  We don’t ________ or we do ________ because . . . (You can fill in the blanks!)

For instance, a group whose emphasis is Christian maturity or integrity can succumb to behavior codes and accountability believed necessary to maintain corporate and individual integrity. Likewise, a group whose emphasis is compassion will develop a church culture that rewards behaviors consistent with the core value and discourages those that seem opposed to it. Legalism can be harsh or velvet glove. It can be nicely gift wrapped or laying in a gutter. Regardless of the packaging and presentation, legalism is legalism and it will always produce the fruit of legalism – death.

External accountability is like driving with the sheriff in the back seat of your car. As long as the sheriff is there, no one is going to speed! Remove the external presence of authority, and a speeder is reborn! It is a mistake to think that persisting in accountability long enough will produce a change of nature. Rather, a change of nature will produce accountability.

Accountability only enables performance-based religion. It is the self-aware, self- monitoring, Adamic counterfeit of biblical discipleship. It is like a zookeeper who expects the cage to change a tiger into a pussycat. The bars only restrain the tiger. Take away the bars and what do you have? Tiger, and lots of it! However, if the tiger’s nature was somehow changed, the bars would no longer be necessary. This is exactly what should experientially happen for believers: Rebels are supposed to have been made into obedient children. A new nature is supposed to have been imparted at salvation.

Sometimes our conversion and sanctification experience have all the spiritual vitality of a freeze-dried TV dinner. Because we are weak, the Church often embraces legalism as a means of keeping the unregenerate Adamic nature in check! We try to sanctify people who have not experienced a genuine change of nature, or who are experientially out of touch with their new nature. This is particularly true for second and third generation children who have grown up in the church. Sure, our children may have said the sinner’s prayer when they were six years old, but somewhere along the way, the experiential reality of regeneration is lost. Rather, they have figured out, embraced, and conformed to the church culture and its expectations.

Our churches are full of frustrated tigers and exhausted zookeepers who resort to the whip of legalism and accountability (most of the time unconsciously) as the only thing they know to keep the tiger in check! Eventually the cage and whip will destroy the animal’s essential nature. It will just lay in the back of the cage in a lethargic stupor. Its outward presence says animal, but its inward essence has been destroyed. Often the zookeeper no longer uses the whip to restrain wild behavior; now he has to use it to get any response from the animal.

Spiritual sons and daughters who become exhausted from fighting against the external restraints of legal accountability eventually just give up. Their essential nature is so crushed that they simply collapse into the church culture and its accountability system. “Fine, whatever it is that you want, I will give it to you. Just lay off the whip, will you?” Passivity and withdrawal set in.

In a spiritual climate where passivity has taken root, it is futile to try to get production from lethargic believers. You can bark motivational slogans like a Marine drill sergeant all day long with little result. The unenlightened drill sergeants will not understand why their accountability partners or protégés lay motionless in the back of their spiritual cages, or merely yawn at the proposition of actually moving forward. They do not realize that the essential nature has been destroyed! The whip of accountability and the mantras of the high calling cannot awaken an exhausted son or daughter—only a healed identity can.

All restraints, codes, and principles of accountability are impotent to change the nature of the one in the cage. In fact, the tiger will resent the cage because it conflicts with his essentially wild nature. He may obediently pace the perimeter of the cage, staying within its boundaries, but he is really checking for weakness because the artificial environment does not suit his wild and free nature. Likewise, the bars of accountability on a Spirit-son of the New Covenant will ultimately lead either to resentment toward the bars and the one who put them there, or to disengaged passivity. Obedience gained on the altar of conformity to church culture is a legal abomination.

Now, of course, a caged tiger is better than a loose one prowling the neighborhood! Likewise, accountability is better than unbridled sin, but the manifestation of the life of the Son is much better than policed accountability. Being accountable does indeed restrain the carnal nature, but it takes constant diligence and effort to see that the cage is properly maintained. Any detected weakness must immediately be reinforced by more bars, more rules. A patrolling zookeeper is required to inspect the condition of the cage and the behavior of the animal.

To some people, the “zookeeper and tiger-in-the-cage scenario” is biblical accountability, but I call it bondage. I am through with the zoo. I returned my zookeeper’s union card.



This blog is an excerpt from our title: The Silent Killers of Faith: Overcoming Legalism and Performance-based Religion  It is available in all formats at

Overcoming Legalism

Copyright 2014,  Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references.  For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact
Would you like to partner with us in distributing our materials and perhaps generate some income for yourself?  Please go to for details of our Affiliate program. This ministry is sustained by the freewill offerings of those believe in the message of a radical grace in a new covenant understanding. If this article has been a blessing to you, would you prayerfully consider making a tax-deductible contribution through our Paypal button to help? Thank you and God bless you.


10 comments on “Legalism: Are You in the “Accountability” Zoo?: 'Overcoming Legalism and Performance-based Religion - Part 2'

  1. While many will not agree with what you have written, the fact is that there are many who resign to being caged. When a person gives up and gives in to the behavior modification and external control – they wind up living on “auto pilot” and things like creativity and inspiration are suppressed. No risk taking or “leaps of faith” any more – and that is sad.

    Much of the religious model of accountability results in masses of people attending a weekly event as spectators – how sad.

    Jesus came to give us life and life more abundantly. We were created to be His expression on the earth, and that will only happen when people leave the cage. After all, isn’t that the freedom Jesus declared in Luke 4:18-19?

  2. This is an excellent fleshing out and practical description of legalism and its deadening effects. Perhaps it would be helpful here to add a terse definition of legalism that would function like the 10 amendments to the US constitution that restrain the federal government from tyranny. This is a base-line upon which the nuances of legalism, as described by Stephen Crosby, can rest.
    Legalism – To constrain the conscience of another beyond what is expressly set down in Scripture or by what is of good and necessary consequence deduced from Scripture.

  3. Dear Dr. Crosby,

    I have read your Authority, Accountability, and the Apostolic Movement a couple of times and I want to tell you thank you. I have learned a lot. I live in LA and recently started attending Oasis church to make some good Christian friends. I have been blessed with several close friends whose friendships I cherish. I need to ask you a question about something that happened last night at church and I hope you don’t mind me asking here. Last night we had Bishop Ulmer as a guest speaker. He spoke on the “forgotten baptism.” He explained that there was the baptism of the Holy Spirit but there was another one that is found in 2 Corinthians 10. It is the baptism into Moses aka modern day Moses who is my pastor. He proceeded to say that every one that entered into the church was baptized into Pastor Philip. I had so many things swirling through my mind at this point. I had never heard anything like this before. He was explaining how my Pastor gets visions from God and if he ever loses his vision that we can trust his heart. He had both Pastor Philip and Pastor Holly get on stage with people holding their arms up “symbolic of the cross” and said the anointing like Aaron was flowing from their head to their garment and then into us. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.

    After service I immediately got up to leave absolutely disgusted with what I had just witnessed. As I was walking out of the front of my church Bishop Ulmer was literally bee lining it to his VIP parking. I said wait I have a question for you. I asked him how could a pastor lose his vision from God? Shouldn’t every pastors vision be Christ and Him crucified? He said yeah that’s what that was! WHAT? He continued running to his car and refused to explain what he meant. I have so many questions. How can my pastor be Christ and Him crucified? And why have I never heard of the “forgotten baptism of Moses?”

    Is this a new teaching? Have you ever heard of this before?

    • Kimberly, thank you for posting. I am glad the accountability book is a help to you. Regarding your question, sadly, I have heard this teaching before. I will tell you candidly . . . that is a blasphemous doctrine, the idea that we should be baptized unto any man. You need to get out of that church . . . now. No questions asked.

  4. Dear Dr. Stephen,

    I just want to say thank you again for writing your book. This comment is in regards to the “forgotten baptism.” I just need reassurance that this is blasphemous doctrine. I have made many friends at my church and I am in the process of leaving. I feel very confident that the leadership is in much error supporting this “forgotten baptism of Moses.” I wrote a message to my pastor on his blog sharing my concerns about this teaching and he deleted my comment. I feel like I am swimming against the stream right now. I am posting the link to a video and hope that you can possibly give me your insight. Leaving a church is more difficult when there are friendships involved.

    Here is the link to the video

    Bishop Ulmer’s main points are:

    3:26 – explains the forgotten baptism.

    7:45 – explains we are baptized into our leader in the spirit realm.

    14:27 – explains we are baptized into our leaders vision.

    18:00 – explains when a leader loses his vision that we need to trust his heart. (WAIT! Shouldn’t a leader always have Christ and Him crucified as his vision? This whole thing gets confusing.)

    30:10 – reiterates again we have been baptized into Moses. (At this point I am wondering about Jesus. According to this sermon Jesus doesn’t exist. It’s just Moses and my pastors vision.)

    41:10 just starts getting even more weird.

    I don’t know how many people actually agreed with this message. I don’t agree with it and feel it is wrong to stay in this church. Even if it was not my pastors message he is agreeing with it because the church has posted this video on YouTube. I thought to myself maybe he didn’t agree with it because he did say he didn’t expect this to happen. I was hoping my Pastor would have apologized for this teaching that we were subjected to but apparently he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Is it just me or do you think this teaching is blasphemous? Any help would be appreciated. Thank you in advance.

    Your friend in Christ,

    • Hi Kimberly. I certainly understand. I know it is not easy when friendships are involved, but sometimes, there are things that are so important that they require standing alone at times. Swimming against the stream is normal, until you change streams! 🙂 This is one of those times. I think this teaching is blasphemous. The motif of leadership is OLD COVENANT . . . we have one BETTER than Moses, and His spirit indwells us. Jesus is the only head of the church we are baptized unto. There is not a shred of support for being baptized unto our leader or his vision. The entire CONCEPT of leadership as presented is without NT justification. There are 58 references to ministry “one to another” in the NT. 1 reference to pastor. There is not a single passage, anywhere in the NT even suggesting that there is such a thing as “leadership vision” that we must submit to. Just do a word search some time. Search “leadership vision.” You won’t find it. The only way you can get there is by going, as this man has done to Old Testament typology. Well, How did that work for them? Even Moses didm;t inherit the promise. None of the people save 2, who were led by Moses inherited the promise. There is a BETTER WAY, based on BETTER promises, based on a BETTER covenant. All this other stuff is just nonsense. Get out of that church as quick as you can.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *